New Australians

Bridging Troubled Waters: Australia and asylum seekers

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Ward documents the enormous cost savings of community detention – including reduced harm to individuals – from integration into jobs, education, language training and housing

A new book on Australian refugee policy aims to be a bipartisan guide to change, but avoids the evidence that dragging refugees and Muslims into unrelated issues is good politics, writes Kevin Bain.

IN HIS NEW BOOK Bridging Troubled Waters: Australia and asylum seekers, Dr Tony Ward applies his economic and government background to review the Australian evidence about boat journeys and minimising deaths at sea, securing the longterm futures of the 2,000 offshore and 32,000 onshore refugees, and assisting asylum seekers in our region, especially in Indonesia.

Ward’s fact checks may surprise: two policies introduced to reduce boat arrivals – Temporary Protection Visas in 1999 and the “no advantage” test in November 2012 – resulted in higher boat arrivals in the 12 months following and the big promises of the U.S. agreement of late 2016 did not re-start the boats. There is some good news about Australian attitudes here – opposition to migration levels tracks the unemployment rate with no correlation to actual migration flows, and Pew Foundation surveys show that nativism (the importance placed on being locally born, and having the majority language and religion) – is of relatively low importance in Australia (with some variation around education and political allegiance).

He documents the enormous cost savings of community detention – including reduced harm to individuals – from integration into jobs, education, language training and housing. How unhelpful it is that the 34,000 onshore refugees can’t access Permanent Residency visas (approximately 200,000 per annum are issued) or temporary working visas (600,000 p.a.).

“Bridging” is in this book’s title, because Ward seeks a “balancing act” between “stop the boats” and “bring them here”, and he ultimately supports the argument that “any softening” of current policies would re-start the boats. This is despite the Australian navy’s demonstrated capability to stop the boats (from 278 in 2012 and 300 in 2013, to 31 turned back since then).

An alternative “bridging” proposal has been put forward by advocate Father Frank Brennan (a professor of law), who contends that the U.N. Refugee Convention obligation does not extend to the great majority of refugees, who embark by boat to Australia from “transit countries” such as Indonesia rather than in direct flight from persecution, an opinion rejected by most of the advocacy and legal sector. Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne and John Menadue call for emptying the offshore detention disasters and, in a later iteration, expand this to only support naval turnbacks if legal, transparent and safe to do so. 

We only accepted 580 refugees from Indonesia in the ten years to 2010, yet we expected high co-operation in preventing people leaving Java by boat. Our leaders are distrusted in Indonesia, Nauru and PNG and the most useful work seems to be through Track 2 dialogues: unofficial forums for NGOs, academics and decisionmakers in a private capacity to exchange views, and discuss support, for refugees “in place”. People in transit are largely motivated to escape rather than to find a specific destination and often end up in "stuckedness" — permanent temporariness in a country where they cannot participate. Antje Missbach’s recent research with refugees in Indonesia is important in understanding the “push” factors external to Australia.

Back on the “bridging” issue, this book aims to be a bipartisan guide to change, but what if one side has polling evidence that dragging refugees or Muslims into unrelated issues is good politics? Hence “the Labor Party connected more people to the people smuggling network than [to the NBN]” and the PM’s joking claim in a parliamentary debate on electricity about Labor’s “solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood. The ugly cruelty on Manus Island becomes more acceptable, as this poisonous rhetoric becomes pervasive.

The contrast between what is happening and what is needed is stark. To match in scale the German commitment, we would be taking 300,000 refugees, not the current 25 000, but neither Ward nor Brennan et al can find a politically achievable response to these abnormal times. Robert Manne found that Canberra’s paranoia is that the slightest concession will unravel the whole system of deterrence.

Klaus Neumann points out that much of the bipartisanship and positivity in previous “kinder” periods was due to nationbuilding goals post-WWII, when refugees were useful migrants, and to the Cold War and post-Vietnam obligations of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke towards Indochinese refugees. Containment and repatriation policies came to the fore when these factors disappeared. Perhaps the U.N. New York Declaration, seeking a global compact, can stimulate an enlarged vision.

Bridging Troubled Waters – Australia and asylum seekers, by Tony Ward (Australian Scholarly Publishing Ltd, North Melbourne, 1 August 2017), RRP $39.95

Join Tony Ward, Julian Burnside QC, Lucy Honan (Refugee Action Collective), Michelle O'Neil (ALP, Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia) at 'Left Q&A Panel: Can we bring them here and prevent deaths at sea?', 5th December, 2017 07:00 pm at Victorian Trades Hall, 54 Victoria St, Carlton VIC 3053 

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and teacher who is active in housing and refugee advocacy and is the Secretary of the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

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